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Monday, February 18, 2013

“The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”, by Robert A. Caro

1246 pages, History Book Club, ISBN-13: 978-1582882611

Have you ever thought you really understood something and thereafter learned that you didn't understand at all? This was my experience while reading The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. The clarity and breadth of this book made me feel if suddenly the curtain had been thrown back to reveal the real reasons for government actions that can appear so unreasonable. Don't be daunted by the length of this book. Caro's exhaustive work about one of the most politically-powerful men in 20th Century New York (who was never elected to public office) is a page-turner and a classic story of a man acquiring power for power's sake.

Until I read The Power Broker, I really had no idea who Robert Moses was. I knew very little about urban planning, New York City politics, or public works. Caro handles the subjects so thoroughly that the lack of familiarity mattered not at all. Moses was obviously a giant of a man. He accomplished great things and made colossal blunders; he was a man of great vision who was blind to the effects his policies had on the less fortunate. The contradictions are laid out in full detail in this monster of a book. It is hard to comprehend the work that Caro must have put into this book; it stands as the definitive biography of Moses and the textbook of urban policy in America.

Many readers and historians have used this book for a primer on how NOT to conduct urban planning. Moses' heavy hand, disdain for delays and love of the automobile in transit-centered New York City are really only a small part of this story. Like the title says, I think Caro really wrote a tale of a man whose official job titles were "only" the head of the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority and the NY Parks system, but the power he wielded shook mayors, senators and even a president or two along the way. His power transcended political party and popular will, and only did late in his career, as he battled society women over expanding a parking lot in Central Park, did he begin to fall from his once-untouchable pedestal. Caro emphasizes that Moses never used power for financial wealth, and lived modestly his entire life.

The amount of detailed research in the book is amazing. We are able to follow the character development of Moses from his days as an idealistic civic reformer through the transformation by which he became one the most shrewd, and venal, operators in the system he set out to reform. As the years go by, we learn that although Moses's energy and ambition do not wane, his ideas of urban infrastructure design are hopelessly out of date. Furthermore, his preference for glamorous bridges instead of more practical tunnels, and his stilting of the mass transit system in favor of more and more expressways results in censure from Caro. In the end, we are intended to believe that the work of Robert Moses has become a barrier to the development of the greatest American city.

Historians today now look at Moses with a kinder light than Caro did in 1974, citing him for the quality and aesthetic touches he put into many of his highways and parks (remember, by 1974, “form follows function” reigned supreme, and all public buildings and projects were bland, faceless monoliths of concrete and cinderblocks). Even the oft-quoted statement that Moses deliberately designed his parkway bridges too low to accommodate buses has been discredited by Caro himself in later years.

Stupendous in the scope of its research, meticulous and flowing in its prose, Caro's biography of Robert Moses is not only of interest to New Yorkers and students of urban politics, but is essential reading for anyone anywhere seeking insight into the exceptional human personality and its attendant darkness.

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